Chances are you know someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. The symptoms are clear: confusion, loss for words, memory issues. Alarmingly, the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s, (Alzheimer’s being the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of all cases) continues to increase worldwide, especially among older adults.
In fact, your risk of developing dementia doubles every five years after age 65!
In fact, your risk of developing dementia doubles every five years after age 65! None of us want to go through our later years in a mental fog, being unable to make decisions, or care for ourselves. Or, god forbid, becoming a burden on our loved ones.
Contrary to popular belief, dementia and Alzheimer’s are not a regular part of aging. There are treatments, and most importantly preventative measures you can take, but no cures.
Don’t fall victim to age-related dementia. In this post you will learn the most important lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
1- Be active – to improve overall brain function
Exercise increases blood flow throughout the body and to the brain. Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing your nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections, and protecting them from damage. It also increases the size of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
As we age our brain networks become less well connected and our brains actually shrink!
Exercise helps increase connectivity. People who exercise regularly experience better cognitive functioning and memory than those that don’t.
Animal studies point to why this might be. Exercise increases both the number of small blood vessels that supply blood to the brain and the number of connections between nerve cells in rats and mice. Research suggests that exercise protects against Alzheimer’s by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as make new ones.
How much exercise do you need to do to reap the brain boosting benefits?
Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise 5 days a week. In fact, studies have shown the more exercise the less risk of developing dementia. Anything that gets your heart rate up is a good place to start. Walking, swimming and biking are great activities for beginners. However, even random household activities, like gardening and cleaning are beneficial as long as they get you up and moving.
Build muscle to pump up your brain.
Moderate levels of weight and resistance training not only increase muscle mass, they help you maintain brain health. Weight training appears to be especially beneficial to women, who are at a greater risk of developing dementia than men. If you’re over 65, adding 2-3 strength sessions to your weekly routine may cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.
Include balance and coordination exercises in your routine.
The risk of head injuries from falling increases as we age, which in turn increase your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Balance and coordination exercises help build a strong core which can help you avoid spills. Try yoga, Tai Chi, Barre classes and exercises that use balance balls and discs.
2- Healthy eating – for a healthier brain
A healthy diet is imperative and won’t just keep your body looking good, but will keep your brain in shape as well. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains that minimizes the consumption of fatty foods is recommended.
The Mediterranean diet – The Mediterranean diet is highly recommended for reducing dementia risk. It was developed to spark weight loss, improve heart and brain health, and to prevent cancer and diabetes. The diet emphasizes consuming plenty of vegetables, beans, whole grains, fish, and olive oil—while limiting dairy and meat.
The Mediterranean diet is rated #4 in best diets overall by US News & World Report.
The MIND diet – Another diet to consider is the new MIND Diet, a hybrid created from the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, (which was designed to prevent high blood pressure). The MIND diet takes the DASH and Mediterranean diets and focuses on the foods from both that specifically effect brain health. It emphasizes eating from 10 brain-healthy food groups: green leafy vegetables, all other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine. It prescribes five unhealthy food groups to avoid: red meats, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried and fast food. The MIND Diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by more than half among the participants of one study.
Both of these diets are effective for reducing your risk of developing dementia and they share some common rules:
- Stock up on fruit and vegetables. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the more you eat the better. Try to eat fruits and veggies that are a variety of different colors to maximize your consumption of protective antioxidants and vitamins. U.S. studies have found significantly slower cognitive decline in people who ate at least two servings of vegetables per day. Leafy green vegetables appear to have the biggest impact. Animal studies show that eating a variety of berries can improve your memory. For the greatest memory boosting benefits load up on these superfoods: green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, and berries.
- Avoid trans fats and saturated fats. These fats can cause inflammation and produce free radicals—both of which are bad for your brain. To reduce your consumption avoid full-fat dairy products, red meat, fast food, fried foods, and packaged and processed foods. Watch out for trans fats on labels, where they are listed as “partially hydrogenated oils.”
- Get plenty of omega-3 fats. DHA found in omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by reducing beta-amyloid plaques. Fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, and sardines are good sources. You can also supplement with fish oil.
- Maintain consistent levels of insulin and blood sugar. Diabetes has been closely linked to Alzheimer’s and some researchers even call the disease a third type of diabetes. Manage sugar intake and blood sugar levels to keep your brain healthy. Mounting evidence suggests a strong link between metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, and our signal processing systems. Eat several small meals throughout the day and avoid packaged, refined, and processed foods. They tend to be high in refined carbs such as sugar and white flour, which can rapidly spike glucose levels and inflame your brain. Eating habits that reduce inflammation and promote normal energy production are best for your brain.
If you’re not crazy about the idea of going on a strict diet don’t worry, read on for some simple things you can do to eat healthier and minimize your risk of developing dementia.
- Eat antioxidant-rich foods. Whenever possible, add in antioxidant-rich foods, such as blueberries, broccoli, carrots, kale, soybeans, and grapes
- Drink raw fruit and vegetable juices. A study found that drinking fruit and vegetable juices more than three times a week could cut the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 76%.
- Up your vitamin K intake. Vitamin K plays a crucial role in anti-aging and may prevent Alzheimer’s. It is not found in most multivitamins but you can get healthy dose by eat lots of leafy greens
- Get your Omega-3s. At least once a week, swap your portion of meat or dairy for a serving of fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids
- Incorporate spices in your diet. Many including black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, oregano, basil, parsley, and vanilla are high in antioxidants. An active ingredient in turmeric may protect directly against dementia.
- Drink tea daily. Regular tea consumption may enhance memory and mental alertness and slow brain aging. Green tea, white and oolong teas are also particularly beneficial to brain health. 2-4 cups a day is recommended. Although not as powerful as tea, coffee also has benefits.
3. Reduce stress to prevent brain shrinkage
In a world so full of stimuli, stress and anxiety are a common part of our lives. In the modern world we deal with a million things everyday, the unfortunate result is elevated stress levels and often times anxiety. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that over 40 million people in the US over the age of 18 suffer from some anxiety-related disorder, and that only accounts for those who have been diagnosed.
Often “stress” and anxiety are used interchangeably, but there is a significant difference. Put simply, anxiety is a sense of fear and apprehension that puts you on heightened alert. Our bodies go on overdrive to prepare to protect us from potential threats. It’s when we start to find ourselves in a constant state of anxiety that we suffer. Our bodies never turn off our fight or flight response, and we live in a constant state of anxiety. This is the basis of many anxiety-based disorders.
Anxiety is our bodies internal response to stress. Stress can manifest in other ways and is a natural part of life. Situations that cause a person to feel sad, angry, worried are causing stress. Generally, they are temporary, causing a short-lived mental and physical response. When the situation is over, the stress is relieved. Stress is usually caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response. That’s part of what makes anxiety intrinsically different from stress, and also what makes it so difficult to treat and manage.
There is strong evidence that anxiety is linked to the development of Alzheimer’s, especially for those who are already at risk for the disease. A recent study showed that people who had mild cognitive impairment and reported high levels of anxiety were 135% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s! Anxiety takes a heavy toll on the brain and can lead to shrinkage in the hippocampus, reduce nerve cell growth, and greatly increase your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
It’s critical that you learn how to combat stress and prevent anxiety from impacting your life. Read on for proven techniques to reduce your stress level and prevent anxiety.
- Breathe. Stress can alter your breathing, causing shorter more shallow breaths. This type of breathing starves the brain of oxygen and sets off the body’s stress response.
Here are two simple breathing techniques you can use:
For both of these techniques you will want to find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down, where you won’t be disturbed for five to ten minutes.
Slow nostril breathing: Close your eyes and relax your body. Take a long deep breath, inhaling through your nose. Try to inhale slowly and evenly. Count in your head as you inhale. After you fill your lungs hold your breath for just a second or two. Next, exhale through your nostrils at a slow even pace. Try to make the exhale last the for same count as the inhale. Focus on the sound of your breath coming in and out and clear your mind of other distractions.
Water fall breathing: Close your eyes and relax your body. Take a long deep breath, inhaling through your nose. Try to inhale slowly and evenly. Inhale until your lungs feel as if there completely full. Pause for one or two seconds then open your mouth and allow the air to spill out, like a waterfall, until your lungs have emptied. Repeat. Soften your face as you inhale, on your exhale imagine all of your worries flowing out, with the breath. Focus on lengthening your inhale as your body starts to relax.
This type of restorative breathing can instantly reduce your stress levels. Practice these techniques any time you feel stressed.
- Relax daily. Keeping stress under control and anxiety at bay requires regular effort. Make relaxation a priority. Take a walk, practice yoga, relax in a warm bath, whatever it is that calms you mentally and brings a sense of peace. Taking the time to care of your mental health is essential to your overall health.
- Believe, in something. Most scientists acknowledge a strong mind-body connection, and studies suggest that spirituality brings with it the added benefit of better brain health. Having a belief system can make you feel safer, more reassured and therefore ease anxiety. Meditation, prayer, reflection, and religious practice may defend your brain against the damaging effects of stress.
- Have fun. No work and all play makes Jack a stressed boy and is not good for your or your brain. Make time for the leisure activities you enjoy the most, whether its reading a book or riding your bike. Schedule a little play time into your day, everyday.
- Laugh. Keeping your sense of humor can combat stress in a variety of ways. Laughter can stimulate your circulation and aid muscle relaxation, helping reduce the physical symptoms of stress. Chat with an old friend who makes you laugh, watch a funny movie, or read a funny book. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself once in a while.
4. Get quality sleep to cleanse the brain
It’s no secret that the amount of stress we have in our lives can effect how well we sleep, or that anxiety can cause us to lose sleep. Sleep, it turns out is essential for preventing dementia. People with Alzheimer’s disease frequently suffer from insomnia and other sleep disorders. Disrupted sleep isn’t just a symptom of Alzheimer’s, but a possible risk factor.
Several studies have linked poor sleep to increased levels of beta-amyloid, a sticky brain-clogging protein that interferes with sleep—preventing the deep sleep necessary for memory formation. In addition, studies show that the brain goes through a cleansing process as we sleep. Like a toilet, it circulates fluid and flushes out the toxins. This process has been observed in mice where during deep sleep the fluid that’s normally on the outside of the brain, the cerebrospinal fluid, circulates back into and through the brain. This process, via what’s known as the glymphatic system, allows the brain to clear out toxins. Other studies show that sticky amyloid plaques, commonly associated with Alzheimer’s, develop more quickly in the brains of sleep-deprived mice.
Most adults require at least 8 hours of sleep per night, with several of those hours being devoted to deep sleep. Any less, and productivity and creativity suffers.
Clearly getting enough sleep is vital to your brain’s health. Here are some ways you can improve the duration and quality of your sleep.
- Get screened for sleep apnea. If you snore get screened for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous condition where breathing is disrupted during sleep. Treatment can make a huge difference in your health and the quality of your sleep.
- Set a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time everyday. Your brain and body will respond positively.
- Limit napping. Taking a nap can be a great way to recharge, but it can make insomnia worse. If you have trouble falling alseep or staying asleep at night consider eliminating napping. If you must nap, do so early in the day and limit it to thirty minutes.
- Ban technology. Keep television and computers out of your bedroom. Technology that stimulates the brain should be avoided when trying to fall asleep.
- Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Find a pattern of behaviors that help you to relax and unwind. Take a bath, practice deep breathing, or write in your journal. Keeping the same routine at bedtime will help signal to your body and brain that it’s time to slow down and rest.
- Quiet your mind. This can be one of the hardest but most beneficial changes you can make. If stress, anxiety, or negative thoughts keep you awake, try to actively distract your mind. Imagine your most peaceful, happiest time and imagine yourself there. Or practice deep breathing as you lay in a comfortable pose, focus on your breath and empty your mind. If that doesn’t work, consider moving to another room and reading or journaling (emptying your mind onto a piece of paper can be very effective) and then return to your bed when you’re feeling more relaxed.
- Avoid exercising within 3 hours of bedtime. Exercise increases your heart rate and blood flow, waking up your body and your brain. These stimulating effects can last for hours after your finish exercising and may prevent you from falling asleep.
- Limit your caffeine consumption. Drinking coffee or tea within a few hours of bedtime is not a good idea. Caffeine is a stimulant that can cause you to be more alert and interfere with sleep. If you must have your after dinner coffee or tea, switch to a decaffeinated variety (keep in mind these still contain small amounts of caffeine).
- Limit alcohol. Although having a few drinks may help you fall asleep, drinking before bedtime can interfere with the quality and quantity of sleep you get. People who drink before bed often go straight into deep sleep, and then wake as soon as the effects of the alcohol have worn off. Alcohol can severely effect the quantity and quality of sleep you get.
5. Be social for better brain functioning
We are social creatures by nature. We don’t thrive in isolation, and neither do our brains. Studies show that the more connected we are, the better we perform on memory and comprehension tests. Staying socially engaged may even protect us against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia later in life.
As we get older we often become more isolated. Retirement and fewer commitments can leave us with fewer social connections. Therefore it’s important to focus on making and maintaining a strong network of friends. You don’t need an abundance of friends, just a few good friends that you get together with regularly.
Here are some suggestions for keeping yourself engaged and finding and developing new friendships:
- Volunteer. Plenty of organizations could use your support and help. Find one whose cause you find especially appealing. You can find listings of volunteer organizations online and often in your local paper.
- Join a club or social group. Ask others, visit your local library and community online bulletin boards for listings of clubs and groups. If something sparks your interest try it out.
- Visit your local community center or senior center. They often offer a variety of activities that will involve engaging with others
- Take a class. Your local community college, gym or museum is a good place to look for group classes. Anything from an art to yoga class is a great way to meet new people.
- Reach out over the phone or email. Remember your best friend from college? Well, check in. Re-establishing old friendships not only keeps us connected but talking about the old times is great for your memory.
- Connect with others via social networks such as Facebook. Facebook and other social media is an easy way to keep in touch and make new acquaintances. Take time to have face to face meetings as well.
- Make a weekly, or monthly date with friends. Set up a girls or guys night out and don’t cancel it regardless of what comes up.
- Get out of your house and explore the world. You would be amazed at the people you will meet if you step out your door and visit some new places.
- Stay connected. Maintain a deep and meaningful connection with your partner. Commit to spending quality time together regularly, even during the busiest and most stressful times.
6. Give your brain regular workouts for a stronger brain
Mental decline as we age appears to be largely due to weakening connections in the brain. Stimulating the brain and keeping it active can help keep connections strong and may even help create new connections. Lower levels of education are correlated with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s later in life. This is a result of the many connections that are made in the brain due the to the stimulation a higher education entails.
Regardless of your age it never too late to start giving your brain a workout and reaping the rewards.
Try to do several of these brain building activities every day:
- Become a life long learner. Find topics and causes that interest you, research them, and follow them
- Read – books, newspapers or magazines
- Write – letters, emails, stories
- Do puzzles – crossword puzzles, sudoku, word scrambles
- Attend lectures, plays and watch movies
- Take classes at your local adult education center, community college or other community group
- Try memory exercises – many are available online, just google memory exercises, and there are many memory apps available. Go to your the app store on your phone and search for memory games. You can also devise your own memory exercises by challenging yourself to memorize a famous passage, poem, the state capitals, etc.
7. Meditate to protect your brain.
Meditation is growing increasingly popular as it’s myriad of benefits is discovered. Learning to control the mind through meditation is an incredibly powerful technique and can greatly reduce your ability to manage stress. It also has biological benefits to the brain.
A study from 2013 demonstrated that people who regularly perform meditation and did yoga had less brain atrophy than those who did not. Meditation is credited with increasing protective tissue in the brain. Seniors who meditate feel less stressed and have lower amounts of cortisol, a hormone which has been known to increase the risk of developing dementia.
Starting a meditation practice requires commitment and patience. However it is a rather simple thing to do and just requires taking a few minutes out of your day.
Here is an easy guide to start your meditation practice:
- Figure out a time of day where you can sit undisturbed for 5 to 20 minutes.
- Find a comfortable place where you can sit for that time.
- Take a seat and close your eyes.
- Try to allow your body to relax, concentrate on one are at a time, the head, the chest, the arms, etc., and encourage the muscles to soften and tension to leave.
- Start to breathe deeply and concentrate on lengthening your inhalations and exhalations.
- Take your attention to your breath and allow your other thoughts to melt away.
- When a thought pops into your head, acknowledge it, then let it go.
- Sit like this until the time you set aside has elapsed, set an alarm if you like.
- Make it a habit to sit everyday for at least five minutes, longer if possible.
8. Quit smoking, to save your life and your mind.
Smoking is one of the most preventable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that smokers over the age of 65 have a 45-80% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s than those who have never smoked! Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain and may damage the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and thalamus, all of which have been linked to memory.
Quitting smoking is not easy to do, but it starts with making the decision to stop.
There are many things you can use to help you quit, including gums, patches and prescription pills. In addition, alternative therapies including hypnosis and accupuncture can be effective. Once you’ve made the decision to quit, talk to you doctor about what might work best for you. The good news is that within months of quitting your cognitive abilities and memory will improve.
9. Reduce alcohol consumption to avoid damage to your brain
Drink only in moderation. Even moderately heavy alcohol consumption dramatically raises the risk of Alzheimer’s and accelerates brain aging. Despite all the recent hype around red wine and possibly champagne having brain benefits, there is little evidence to support those claims. It has been proven however that alcohol destroys brain tissue and interferes with it’s ability to process information. Short term memory loss is one of the hallmarks of alcoholism. Short term memory loss makes it more difficult to remember new information, so the learning process takes longer. People who regularly drink large quantities may experience blackouts or periods of amnesia where the brain has been unable to process memories.
Amnesia, disorientation and confusion are some of the long terms effects of chronic alcohol abuse.
If you are a woman and drink more than one drink daily, two if you are a man, you could be causing damage to your brain. Consider reducing your intake. If you need support join a local group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. You can find groups in your local paper, phone book or online.
Although there are certain genetic factors that can predispose you to developing dementia and Alzheimer’s following these tips can greatly help you reduce your risk. Remember, if you or a loved one is exhibiting signs of dementia, see a doctor immediately. The sooner dementia is diagnosed and it’s cause understood, the better the treatment and long term outcome.
If you have a question, just ask me via the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer all questions promptly.